Archive for the Movie Reviews Category

The Great Pavarotti!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Movie Reviews with tags , on June 27, 2019 by playthell

The Porcine Lothario of Grand Opera 

A Cinematic Homage to the Maestro

On father’s day my twin children, Samori and Makeda, took me out to the movies to see “Pavarotti,” a documentary on the great Italian tenor who dominated the Grand Opera stage for the second half of the 20th century, brilliantly directed by Ron Howard. I had chosen the movie when they asked what I wanted to do on my special day. It provided an opportunity for me to resume my efforts to tutor them in the complexities of fine art music; the two greatest examples of which are Jazz – a uniquely American classical music invented by Afro-American musicians – and European Classical concert music. Although I privilege instrumental music, the great singers in all genres often have the widest appeal to audiences. And in European music the highest form of vocal artistry is the Grand Opera, where the great composers collaborate with librettist in creating musical dramas that tell wonderful stories in song.

In a career that spanned two centuries – the 20th and 21st – Luciano Pavarotti dominated the Grand Opera stages of the world, and the movie captures his amazing career marvelously. One of the reasons for the success of the film is that we learn as much about the man as his music; which is to say that the film transcends the Opera stage. The artistic choices of the film makers does much to capture and hold the attention of an audience, who may not be opera buffs, by the way they jump-cut from the stage to real life in a seamless narrative.  And most of the music centers around  arias from Pavarotti’s most moving performances.

This is a wise choice because the non-opera fan who would become bored with large segments of an opera, are enthralled listing to the arias. The reason for this was explained by Robert Merrill, venerable baritone with the world renowned Metropolitan Opera. An avid baseball fan who sang the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium countless times, Merrill saw the game of baseball as a metaphor for the opera. He pointed out that baseball is often considered boring for the non-fan until there is a home run, or triple play, or spectacular catch in the outfield, Or acrobatic fielding by the short stop, or a strike out by the pitcher. For Merrill, these magic moments on the baseball diamond were the equivalent of the aria on the Grand Opera stage.

In the Italian opera, an art they invented, it is the tenor who most often sings the great arias with the soprano, and for those who know the score the most dramatic moment comes when the tenor is required to hit the high C. For fans with sadistic sensibilities, or are pissed because their woman has a crush on the tenor who is professing his love in heroic song, their fervent wish is that he will miss…. or at least crack the note. The movie reveals that Pavarotti was well aware of the possibility of disaster, and always took to the stage with great anxiety; announcing in the wings before taking the stage: “Now I go out to die!”

His fears proved fruitless, for The Maestro never missed a high C in performance. Two of the arias that present the greatest chance of failure is the challenging Ah! mes amis” from Daughter of the Regiment,” by Gaetano Donizetti, which contains nine high Cs!  And the hauntingly beautiful Nessum Dorma, from Puccini’s Turandot, in which the challenge is the high B, and Pavarotti is featured in flawless performances of both. In discussing the ever present possibility of a spectacular failure in attempting to perform these operatic masterpieces with the Maestro, who says he is never confident he will succeed singing the great arias, the audience is provided with deep insights into the difficult art of classical singing.

We learn that all great singing is produced in the diaphragm not the throat, and that this is an art where few will succeed, even after many years of rigorous training. And we can count on one hand those who have reached the heights traversed by the great Pavarotti, whose sudden rise to international stardom in 1963 was serendipitous. He was hired to fill in for Guiseppe de Stefano in the role of Rudolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme, at London’s renowned Covent Garden, and overnight a star was born.

Finally, there is the arresting and insightful portrait of Pavarotti the man that emerges from this film. Through footage of the Maestro, supplemented by 53 interviews with those who knew and worked with him in a variety of capacities, we see a man who possessed a zest for life that few among us will ever know. He was a loving devoted father that found real joy in the role; he was an admiring son who honored his father by following in his footsteps as a tenor voice and winning the acclaim that was denied to his father; who made his living as a baker and sang on the side. We see his gluttonous love for wine, food and women – which showed in his generous girth – and his mutual adoration with his audiences reveal a generosity of spirit as abundant as his physique. But we also see his unpalatable side alas.

With multitudes of finely clad voluptuous beauties flashing ‘come hither” smiles and “fuck me” body language, responding as if their ears were connected to the clits, it would require an impotent pooty pop or a righteous Saint with a greater will than David, Samson and Solomon to have resisted such temptations. And although a miraculous singer with a heavenly voice, Pavarotti was no Saint. Indeed, from all appearances he was a potent stud. Given the amount of time spent on the road performing around the world, he was bound to stray. This eventually led to the break-up of his family when his wife had had enough of his prolific philandering. But he would be married again to a beautiful younger woman; although she had no talent or interest in music, she was smitten by Pavarotti and proved to be an excellent business partner and soulmate.

Perhaps the thing that best revealed The Maestro’s expansive love of music is the series of concerts he performed billed as Pavarotti and Friends, and his stint with The Three Tenors, in which he shared the stage with the great Spanish tenors Placido Domingo, who could also credibly claim to be “the greatest tenor in the Grand Opera, and Jose Carreas.” This act was so wildly popular that a documentary was made on them and all three stars set records for earnings with Jose Carreras amassing a net worth of 250, million dollars, Pavarotti 275 million and Placido Domingo – who is also a conductor, 300 million!

This is big time Rock Star and Hip Hop mogul money, and the fact that they could accumulate these sums singing Classical Music is a testament to their unique appeal.  Although Opera, especially the magnificent Italian tenor of the early 20th century Enrico Caruso, was once quite popular.  For instance, the first record to sell a million copies was Caruso’s performance of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” in 1907.  Pavarotti’s  performances in the Pavarotti and Friends concerts, which were dedicated to raising money for charity, put Pavarotti on stage with the world’s biggest stars of popular music. He performed with Rock megastars like Sting and Bono, plus Rhythm&Blues icons such as Barry White and James Brown.

White, a singer/songwriter who was an overweight sex symbol with a girth comparable to Pavarotti’s, sold 100 million records, including 106 gold albums, with 41 becoming platinum. He also had 20 gold and 10 platinum singles. Which makes him one of the most beloved singers of all times worldwide; yet at 20 million dollars White’s net worth is a fraction of Pavarotti’s, who at one point was the most popular singer in the world. This wonderful film captures the complexity and presents an unvarnished narrative of the Maestro’s life, with all his vices and virtues, that’s more than worth the price of the ticket!  

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Watch Pavarotti Perform Nessum Dorma at the MET

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMsqjXv9aJk

Hear Pavarotti sing “Ah! mes amis”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASXYB_TQjpc&list=RDASXYB_TQjpc&index=1

Watch: The Three Tenors Sing “O Sole Mio”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvLZSgP0QMY

Watch The Overweight Lovers: Pavarotti and Barry White

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5z02F9Bbbw

Watch Pavarotti and James Brown Sing “It’s A Man’s World

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gb-B3lsgEfA

The Last Black Man in San Francisco!

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews on June 15, 2019 by playthell

Artist/Poet Renaldo Ricketts Dancing the Mambo on the Trocaderro

Blues for Frisco….When a Movie Captures Real Life

I just saw “The Last Black Man in San Francisco:” a beautiful, tragic, surreal, joyous, magical, heart breaking, cinematic commentary on the plight of Afro-Americans in one of America’s most beautiful affluent cities. The creation of this movie is unique and the resulting product is a work of serious art that by any objective measure is Sui Generis; we have never seen it’s like before. I suppose we could loosely categorize it as a docu-drama, but the fact that the subject of the film both wrote the story and played himself sets this work apart.

Through the trials and tribulations of Jimmy Fails and his cut buddy Mont in their attempt to secure affordable housing in the beautiful “City by the Bay,” we are provided an insiders view of the consequences for several communities that are being driven from the city due to the rise of the new class of rich technocrats spawned by the expansion of Silicon Valley firms that are changing the world economy through digitalization. This movie puts faces on and examines the life stories of the economic casualties that we usually experience only as faceless statistics.

The main classes that are affected are those that gave the city it’s soul, especially Afro-Americans and artists, who are increasingly homeless, living in groups in cramped make shift spaces, couch surfing at friends pads, living in shelters and SRO hotel rooms and cars, or being forced to leave the city altogether. What makes this movie so important is that it is a harbinger of what is to come in other cities; it is well under way in New York for instance.

As I write there is a tenant revolt underway in an attempt to force the government to restore rent protections which are scheduled to expire. My own daughter went off to college and could not afford to move back into the building where she grew up in Harlem, because of the dramatic rise in rents. Hence she finds it cheaper to live in Chicago – where she has a lovely spacious apartment in a beautiful leafy neighborhood a block from the beach – and visit New York, a city she dearly loves, a few times a month!

I have lived among the exiled artist who have been forced to flee San Francisco and resettle in across the Bay in Oakland, and I have personally witnessed their persistent feeling of insecurity as rents skyrocket in their new hometown due to the growing population pressures created by the great trek of refugees seeking shelter. And these are highly educated white folks of which I speak.

But, alas, their degrees are in the humanities; which although the life’s blood of civilization, have been devalued in a predatory capitalist marketplace that increasingly privileges the technocrat. Sadly for American society, although a technical education will equip you to make a living, it provides insufficient guidance in making a good and meaningful life.  And since it remains as true as ever that when white folks catch a cold blacks get the flu, it is fitting that the central characters in this film are Afro-American artists.

One of the things that distinguish art from mere reportage, tragic drama from agitprop, is how the story is told. Here the use of image, language, characterization and outstanding acting raises this film to the level of fine art, which is why it is playing mostly at art house theaters like the Angelica, and multi-plex theaters like The Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side – an affluent community with many well educated residents – that offers a variety of film genres ranging from action flicks to art films. I saw the movie at Lincoln Square and, sadly, there were mostly gray haired white patrons watching; very few black viewers were in the audience. And they are the one’s who need to see this movie the most.

In a way this compounds the tragedy, because what happened to the black community of Fillmore in San Francisco is happening to Harlem as I write. In fact, during it’s hey day in the Post World War II period of the mid 20th century, Fillmore was popularly known as “The Harlem of the West.” When I visited there in 2009, I was so struck by the tragedy of the vanishing Afro-American community I wrote an essay on it titled “A Visit to the Fillmore District: The Strange Case of Fillmore, A Cautionary Tale for Harlem and Black Urban Communities Everywhere!” *(see link at the bottom of this essay)

Employing the insights of historical perspective, this essay takes a close look at the plight of the Afro-American community in San Francisco that was being completely displaced, and it’s grand cultural legacy erased, by the ruthless activities of real estate speculators in an unregulated capitalist economy fueled by techno-dollars. In a moment of recognition and empathy I had a revelation and wrote:

”It seems that every time I look around there is a new white neighbor in my building. Some of them speak and try to be friendly, others act as if they have encountered a man from Mars. Longtime black residents all over Harlem are encountering the same experience, and there is a feeling that we are “losing Harlem.” However, in spite of this visible trend I found it impossible to imagine Harlem as a “post black” community…until I visited Fillmore.”

Escorted by a Black resident of the city Renaldo Ricketts – a poet. Painter, and bon vivant man about town – I met the real black community in San Francisco. A hail fellow well met, every body had love for “Rennie” as he was known to the folk. Watching him move about the city charming wise men and fools, high lifes and low lifes, white folk and black, I dubbed him “El Grand Renaldo!”

El Grande Renaldo at the Shrine of John The Prophet
Paying Homage to Saint John Coltrane!

His photograph kneeling before the Shrine of John Coltrane aka “John the Prophet” decorates the cover of that essay, and was shot during our sojourn into Fillmore. From the brothers in the barbershop to the people going bout their business on the streets, I found an acute consciousness that their community was dying, being appropriated by those with more money and the power that confers. And without fail they expressed a powerful sense of tragedy and loss. However, since I have explored this in some detail in “A Trip to the Fillmore District” I shan’t relitigate it here.

The Last Black Man in San Fancisco tells this tragic tale of dispossession, alienation and desperation very effectively in two hours. The story of the attempt by an essentially homeless black man, with the help of a close friend, trying to regain the fine Victorian house he grew up in – a house he claims his grandfather “built with his own hands in 1946,” and his father lost a half century later – take on bizarre twists and turns, and is told using the kind of modernist techniques one generally associates with live theater. In fact, the narrative structure reminds me of Ishmael Reed’s innovative dramaturgy; employing erudite poetic monologues, flash backs, symbolic imagery or visual metaphors, and a sense of the absurd that can wrest bathos from pathos and find the humor in tragedy.

The array of characters are fascinating and underscore the oft made claim that “truth is stranger than fiction/” The set design, along with panning camera explorations of the grand old house, amount to a visual love song to a bygone era of black style and elegance that lives on in Jimmy Fails memories of his boyhood. Danny Glover, who like Fails is a native San Franciscan, plays Mont’s blind grandfather with the sensitivity and emotional depth that a great actor who knows and deeply identifies with his subject can bring to a role.

The film also greatly benefits from the film makers intimate knowledge of their city in the locations that chose to shoot; emphasizing it’s marvelous hills, the centrality of the Bay, and the dream like fog that rolls over the city. The cinematography is Fabulous! There are breathtaking shots of fails riding his skateboard down steep hills, with the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge in the background, and the camera angels are such that we experience the danger and the thrill of it.

This insiders view of the city is also apparent in the way they weave in scenes of exotic colorful street people, such as the down and out opera singer with a voice that sounded like it was forged on the smithy of the Gods. Although some of the eccentric characters who flash on the screen leaves the audience wondering if they are real or actors. Which is part of the exotic charm and spiritual power of this poetic, Tragi-comic, 21st century tale of two cities.

A City of Spectacular Vistas!

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And, finally, there is the deeply moving musical score which adds emotional gravitas to the visual images on the screen. As I write, I can hear the haunting refrains of that anthem from the halcyon Hippy days, when San Francisco was symbolized to young seekers of wisdom and truth as the birthplace of The Summer of Love. “If you come to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair,” sang a solo black male singer whose decadent surroundings suggested the death of an era….and the communities that produced it.

It is difficult to conjure the words to describe the poignant memories this film evoked in me. For I first visited San Francisco during the Summer of Love, over 50 years ago; I drove up from LA, where I had traveled from Philadelphia to visit a beautiful young lady. We were madly in love and San Francisco seemed a magical city out of a fairy tale with it’s white buildings perched on hilltops, quaint cable cars, surrounded by the beautiful waters of the San Francisco Bay, from which arose the famous fogs that enhance it’s fantasy-like ambiance. Alas, when I visit San Francisco today, I still find it breathtakingly beautiful, but the city has no soul and the magic is gone. This, alas, is what the film captures.

Still Beautiful….But The Thrill is Gone

Once his was a Mecca for Artists

 

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Watch a Trailer From the film

Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

June 13, 2019

*”A visit to the Fillmore District” @ https://commentariesonthetimes.me/2009/09/21/a-visit-to-the-fillmore-district/

Black Panther: A Cinematic Marvel 

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags , , on February 25, 2018 by playthell
 
The Wakandans 

 The Movie is the Message

When I was a boy growing up in racist segregated Florida, where white supremacy was a fact in law and custom, my grandmother used to say “Boy, don’t pay no attention to those ignorant crackers; cause when the Lord made colored people he was really showing off.”  I thought of her the other night as I gazed at the beautiful people of Wakanda, a mythical African nation, on the silver screen at the Magic Johnson theater.  They struck me as a cinematic representation of Duke Ellington’s classic composition, “A Black and Tan Fantasy.” For my money, just the opportunity to gaze upon the lush ebony beauty of Lupita Nyong’o on the giant screen was worth the price of the ticket.

Lupita Nwong’o

An African Beauty

Black Panther, the latest blockbuster movie from Marvel comics is a cinematic Marvel that is taking the world by storm and raking in grand theft dough. Directed by young Afro-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler, whose debut film Fruitvale Station won kudos at the Sundance Festival, the movie is exceeding all expectations. It returned the 250 million dollar investment – 200 million in production cost and 50 million in promotion – and showed a profit of 177 million within the first four days of it’s opening.

According to a February 20, article in Vanity Fair the movie grossed 242 million domestically and 427 million world-wide. Some film industry analysts are predicting that revenues from this film could reach a billion dollars!   The film’s spectacular box office performance – which is the best ever for a February release – will insure that a sequel will be made. Already young black men have been observed copying the hand gestures of the warriors in the film, and it’s anybody’s guess how big this phenomenon will become.

What at first seemed like a reckless act, investing such a vast sum in a movie featuring black people and set in Africa – 35 million more than Dr. Strange and 25 million more than Spider Man’s Homecoming – has turned out to be a brilliant business decision.  Yet, it was not business matters alone but a good measure of altruism on the part of Kevin Fiege, President of Marvel Studios, who persisted despite opposition within the company, and decided to make this film.  Recounting the reason why he and Director Coogler – who became a fan of the Black Panther when he first discovered  him in a Marvel comic  in an Oakland bookstore at the age of eight – wanted to bring the black superhero to the screen, Fiege told CNBC

“He’s making this movie for his 8-year-old self. Most importantly, you do it for other 8-year-olds, to inspire the next generation the way we were inspired. And in this case, when Ryan was growing up, perhaps there weren’t that many of these heroes to be inspired by that looked like him.”

Director Ryan Coogler

This is a remarkable and admirable departure from the values, commercial and cultural, that has governed the movie industry since the golden days of Hollywood.  As Neal Gabler points out in his path-breaking book “An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Created Hollywood,” the Jewish movie Moguls that built the big studios which dominated movie making were fundamentally businessmen whose principle objective was to provide escapist fare to a mass market for maximum profit.  They were not men on a mission to rescue the Jewish image from anti-Semitic propaganda, but businessmen trying to make money by enhancing the fantasy life and entertain their audience.  It was they who gave us the blond sex goddesses – Mae West, Gloria Swanson, Marylin Monroe, Kim Novak, et al – the icons of Nazi wet dreams.

In view of attitudes like that, which continue to persist, the making of Black Panther was something of a miracle.  The movie’s greatest value lay in the inspirational effect it will have on children, especially black children.   When I was a boy the only images I saw of Africans were mostly in the Tarzan movies and they were always mindless savages who said “ooga booga” and docilely did the bidding of white folks.  This conception of Africa was as much a fantasy as Wakanda, but it was demeaning to black people and amounted to psychological warfare on black children.   I wonder what affect it would have had on my imagination and self-conception –  which was already quite healthy due to my wonderful family and black teachers – if I had seen such a movie as a kid.

However, this is a movie that can appeal to people of all ages people of all ages who are into fantasy and super-hero flicks employing the computer-generated spectacles that are the stock in trade of this genre, will love the movie too.  Yet, the appeal of this movie is not simply the techno-wizardry of the spectacle, but a talented cast that makes this comic book fable come to life – and it has been a long time coming considering the fact that the black Panther was introduced in Marvel comic books 50 years ago.

The cast, composed of African and Afro-American actors, features seasoned veterans such as Academy Award winner Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, both Afro-American actors, and the West African actor Isaac de Bankole from the Cameroons. They are joined by dashing new comers like the Academy Award-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, and Afro-American actors Michael B. Jordon and Chadwick Boseman, one of the hottest actors in the game.  A brilliant and compelling actor, Boseman has been compiling quite a resume playing iconic Afro-American historical figures such as Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall.

There are many messages in this movie, intentional or not. The brilliance, courage and leadership ability of women is assumed as the most powerful General who commands the armed forces of Wakanda and the leading scientist are women. The Wakandans are anti-imperialists who have developed superior weapons because of their advanced scientific development but refuse to use them to conquer others.

The lessons about gender equality, commitment to science as a means of elevating humanity and anti-imperialism are valuable lessons for all youths, male and female.  And the fact that a studio invested a quarter of a billion dollars in a movie featuring black folks set in Africa, and has double their investment in two weeks, shattering all the myths about movies featuring black casts don’t sell well, is a welcome revelation.

However, there is a curious lesson emphasized by the King when confronted by a long-lost brother, played by Michael B. Jordon, challenges him for the throne and denounces him for refusing to arm oppressed black people around the world.  The two brothers are cast as hero and villain, good against evil.  However, when the “good” king explains why he will not arm black people with their superior weapons it sounds like something white folks would put in his mouth, not something a sane black person would say.

Boseman and Jordon

For in the eyes of white Americans no transgression by whites against blacks ever justifies violent retaliation. Which is why white Americans praised the forgiving families of the nine black worshippers gunned down in their Charleston church by the virulent white racist Dillion Root, when they would be screaming for the head of a black man who committed such a crime against whites.  This is how the white power of the purse censor black expression.  Hence, as I listened to the Wakandan king’s explanation, I thought of independent black film maker Tyler Perry’s axiom on the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold rules!”

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
February 25th 2016

Francofonia: A Panegyric to the Louvre

Posted in Movie Reviews on May 13, 2016 by playthell
Louvre - Hubert Robert_Projet_daménagement_de_la_Grande_Galerie_du_LouvreThe Grand Gallery

On the Ordeal of Art Museums in Times of War

Of the myriad films that will be released this year Francofonia will stand out as unique.  This is because it addresses a topic that is seldom discussed among most people and few rarely give it a thought.   What dose great museums do to protect its priceless art treasures, the cultural heritage of mankind, in times of war?  Although this film references other great museums, mainly the Hermitage in Russia, its focal point is the Louvre in Paris, which in the view of many art historians and critics houses the greatest collection of paintings in the world.  Although many New Yorkers would make that claim for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And upon one of my visits to the Louvre I encountered an Italian woman who said “What do the French know of art…or wine?  You must come to Rome!”

Needless to say, I am not the one to settle this argument, for I have neither the expertise nor desire to do so.  However the claims of cultural nationalist aside, the Louvre is a marvelous place; a grand temple dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of the world’s greatest works of art, the best that the human imagination could conjure in painting and sculpture.  This wonderful creative film provides a penetrating look into the workings of the Louvre and the heroic effort its Director undertook to save their great works of Art.

Written and directed by the Russian master Alexander Sukorov, the film employs a unique narrative method.  Mixing film from newsreels of the period and footage they shot, much of the story is told with a voice over by an omniscient narrator who reads a script that often sounds like an epic poem.  The monologue meditates on the meaning of art to civilization and the importance of museums in establishing the cultural identity of a people.  The combination of the spoken words and images –and in this case the written word since this is a foreign language film with subtitles – provides a powerful experience.

Much of this power derives from the fact that images of great art are juxtaposed with images of real Nazi forces occupying Paris.  The film opens with an aerial view of Paris as we listen to the voice of a person anxiously trying to find their way to the Louvre.  The drama is heightened when we see that it is the voice of Adolph Hitler, riding down a Parisian boulevard in an open car like a conqueror leading his victorious troops while commenting on the design of the city as he makes his way to visit the Louvre.

Here we are reminded that Hitler was a failed artist who once harbored ambitions to become a great architect.  In fact these failed ambitions played a key role in the monster he became.  His failure to gain admission into a prestigious art school in Vienna was blamed on Jews, and his close relationship with architect Albert Speer reflects his desire to realize his architectural ambitions through the talents of this young architect who became the vehicle for the Nazi dictator’s ideas.  In fact, at the Nurnberg trials Speer denies that he ever shared Hitler’s Nazi beliefs but was simply an ambitious architect who graduated from school during a period of profound economic crisis in post-World War I Germany.

Hitler Entering Paris
Hitler Entering Paris
Following his victorious Legions
Hitler’s Painting of a German Castle

Hitler's painting of German castle

A Photograph and Hitler’s Painting of the Castle

Suffering from the financial burden imposed by the Versailles Treaty, the German economy was in chaos, which was reflected in the disastrous decline in the value of German currency and mass unemployment, which was exacerbated by a world-wide depression induced by the collapse of the stock market in America. Hence Speer argued that, like most Germans, he was looking for work wherever he could find it and Hitler offered him the opportunity to realize his grandest dreams.  After all Hitler promised a Thousand Year Reich when Germany would rule the world and Berlin would be its center, just as Rome had been in the ancient world.  And as Hitler’s personal architect he would get to design the grand edifices in the capitol city of the new German empire.

Ironically, it was this ambition of Hitler’s and the claim that the Nazi’s were the protectors and purveyors of civilization that would work to save the great landmarks of Paris such as the Opera House and especially the Louvre.  This is reflected in the fact that no bombs were dropped on Paris, and the orders given to German soldiers instructing them how to handle these cultural treasures with care.  However Hitler showed no such restraint regarding the Hermitage in Russia, which in his view housed the flawed artifacts of the inferior Slavs.

Furthermore most of the German officer corps, unlike many of the Nazis, came from the upper classes and in the early 20th century it was a mark of the well-educated man to have knowledge of French Culture.  Many of the Germans spoke fluent French – plus not that long ago the Russian intelligentsia wrote in French – and all of them professed an interest in and knowledge of great art.

However all of the top Nazi officials also feigned an interest in fine art, but one suspects that this is because they were all yes men to a murderous, temperamental, megalomaniac who was an avid art lover.  In any case, Sukorov made the most of German admiration of French culture and affection for great art by building the plot around two men, one French and one German: Jacques Jaujard and Count Franz Wolff Metternich, played by the French actor Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Benjamin Utzerath, who is German.

Louis -Do de Lencquesaing and Benjamin Utzerath

Louvre - Francofonia_5_-_Louis_Do_De_Lencquesaing__Benjamin_Utzerath

As Jacques Jaujard and Count Metternich

The actors gave outstanding performances as former combatants in World War I – which had formally ended a mere 21 years ago – who first met in 1940 after the German invasion of Paris.  The dramatic tension in this film lies in the fact that Jaujard was Director of the Louvre and Count Metternich – an art historian in civilian life – was the German officer assigned to take over as the custodian of art  Museums in Paris.  Ironically, despite the fact that they represented different sides in the war, they were united in their desire to preserve the great art in the louvre.

Motivated by a deep seated distrust of German intentions, Jujard did not believe that attempts to appease Hitler by the French and British would restrain his aggresion in Europe.  Hence as early as 1938, as he witnessed the German occupation of Poland, Jujard began to secretly remove the art works from the Louvre in a stealth operation that employed art students, workmen, teachers, artists, et al.

Jujard wrapped and crated these treasures into 1,862 wooden cases, assembled a convoy of 203 vehicles, then shipped them off to safe havens in castles and chateaus throughout France.  Hence when Count Metternich arrived at the Louvre on August 16th 1940, and found the Louvre empty, instead of going into a state of rage Jujard wrote in his diary that Metternich almost seemed relieved.

This reflects the fact that Count Metternich, like most German aristocrats, was not a member of the Nazi Party and proved to be as determined as Jujard to keep these great art works out of the hands of Nazi leaders like Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, et al.   Thus each man was in a conflicting position regarding loyalty to their government versus their love of art and commitment to preserving it.

It was especially trying for Jaujard because the French government had capitulated to the Nazi’s and he felt no loyalty to them but continued to serve in his government position rather than run off and join  the “Free French” resistance because of his dedication to preserving the artistic heritage of the Louvre. And he found such a kindred spirit in Metternich that when the war was over and all the art treasures were retrived undamaged,  The cooperation he recieved from Metternich was of such a scale that Jujard requested that De Gaulle award the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest tribute.

There are many revelations in this film, the most disturbing of which is that Hitler’s attitude toward preserving the art works in the Louvre was far more enlightend that George Bush’s attitude regarding the preservation of the even more priceless antiquities in the Museum at Bagdhad.  A sad commentary indeed.  Sukorov employs some novel cinematic techniques in the telling of this tale, but it is a tale well told.  This is an important and thoughtful film that is well worth the price of the ticket.

Fantasy and Reality as conceived in the European Mind

Louvre paintings I

Are visualized in the paintings in the Louvre
 Ancient Greek Godesses such as Nike Goddess of Victory

Louvre - Winged Victory

Has been on display in the Louvre as “The Winged Victory” since 1884

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 12, 2016

Geeks in the Hood!

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags , , on July 26, 2015 by playthell

Shamiek Moore

Shamiek Moore as Malcolm: Leader of the Geek Squad
Big Ups for the Smart kids

Although this movie is Dope on the real, it could easily have been named “Geeks in the Hood,” or “The Geek Squad” vs “Dope Posse.”   And the outcome of this imaginative urban fable would have been just as surprising.  Perhaps it is because there is so much competition facing the movie business today that writers and directors are forced to become more creative; to create works that titillate our emotions and stimulate our intellect; movies that shock, entertain and often provide food for thought.  This is such a movie.

While the most popular American movies rely more and more on the tricks of the cinematic trade that advances in technology makes possible – endless explosions, giant killer machines that transform themselves before our eyes; the marvelous illusions conjured up by special effects, and the booms and bangs orchestrated to dynamic musical scores composed in popular idioms – other movies rely on thoughtful scripts and excellent actors. Dope falls into the latter category. The script combines thoughtful, clever, irreverent language and ideas with a group of talented young actors that make us believe the zany events in this movie could actually happen.

Set in the same type of dangerous funky inner-city LA urban landscape we were first introduced to in John Singleton’s classic Boyz in the Hood, Dope, which is written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa,  provides a different view of youths in the Hood.  Although written and produced a generation later, one cannot help but notice some similarities between Boyz and Dope, this is because Famuyiwa, like John Singleton, also grew up in LA and studied cinema at the famous film school in the University of Southern California – a school whose illustrious grads have left an indelible mark on American Film. Hence like Boyz in da Hood, this is an insider’s view of life in the sprawling megalopolis of Southern California that keeps it real.

A striking difference between the two films is that Boyz focused on the gangstas and Dope centers on the geeks.  Whereas a central character in Boyz dreamed of going to USC on a football scholarship and struggled to make the cut by achieving the minimum score on the SAT, the central character in Dope, Malcom, is something of a computer genius and alternative rock musician who aspires to go to Harvard.

In other words, Famuyiwa has written and directed a film about people like him and his peeps; smart kids in the hood who don’t buy the bogus “real niggaz” bullshit.  They know from first hand observation that the decadent nihilistic values which underpin the “real nigga” syndrome are a direct road to jail or an early grave.  And they ain’t tryin to go either place.  These are young black people who still dare to dream big dreams that can be realized by education and hard work; so they are trying to go to a good college.

The Geek Squad Rocks tha House
Dope-Quincy-Brown-Shameik-Moore-Kiersey-Clemons-and-Tony-Revolori
Their songs were innovative and musically demanding

Malcolm continues to nurture this dream despite discouraging advice from his black male high- school guidance counsellor who calls him “arrogant” and points out that although he has a straight A average, the neighborhood he lives in, and the high school he attended, will cause admissions people at Harvard to view his achievements with suspicion and pretty much dismiss them.  It is a scene that calls to mind the experience described by Malcolm X in his Autobiography, where a white counsellor discouraged his ambitions to become a lawyer as “unrealistic for a Negro” and told him he should aspire to be a carpenter instead.

When they discuss Malcolm’s essay, an analytic history of local cultural icon Ice Cube’s career, which he is intent on submitting with his application for admission to Harvard despite the advice of his academic advisor, the counsellor dismissed it as folly and insisted that Malcolm write an essay about himself.  However Malcolm was unpersuaded and pointed out that the essay he had written displayed all of the things that Harvard should be interested in when considering a potential student; arguing the essay was well designed and researched, plus a model of reason and critical thinking.  He concluded his argument with the audacious claim: “If Dr. Neil de grass Tyson wrote an essay about Ice Cube this is what it would look like.”

Malcolm’s geek squad consists of two other close friends, a quirky Hispanic guy who proudly claims that according to Ancestry.Com he is 14% African, played by Tony Revolori, and an out butch dyke played by the lovely Kiersey Clemons.  The three of them swoop around their LA hood on bikes; constantly making quick detours in order to avoid the gangstas that control the streets.  This is such a persistent problem that one of the geeks suggests that somebody should invent a computer App that will allow them to identify where the thugs are congregating and plot an alternative route.

Although not without laughter, the film paints a poignant portrait of the trials and tribulations suffered by bright kids in dangerous inner-city neighborhoods; kids who are trying to prepare themselves for college and are not enamored with Tupac’s “thug life;” kids who are “different,” as they constantly describe themselves.  In them we see a self-portrait of the writer and his world; Famuyika tells us:

The thing you gotta understand about L.A. is that everything is suburbia. Los Angeles isn’t set up like San Francisco or New York. People come to L.A. and they expect to see a ghetto like the projects, but that’s not the way it’s set up. Inglewood, in particular, is the furthest thing from a ghetto. It’s a middle-class community, but it’s gotten a bad rap over the years…because of Grand Canyon and Pulp Fiction and other films.” Famuyiwa continues about his hometown, “I would be lying if I said there isn’t a negative element in the city, but I would say it’s no different than any other city. You come across gangs na find trouble no matter what you do. But we were never into that. My group of friends were never into that.”

The Intrepid Bikers
dope-bikes_t750x550 
Adroitly navigating the pitfalls of da hood

It was while forced to make a quick detour from their usual route home because the murderous Bloods were shooting a You Tube video, that they became entangled with the local drug lord.   One day while riding through his territory the Drug lord stopped Malcolm and pressed him into service delivering a message to a local beauty.

That Girl

Zoe Kravitz

Zoe Kravitz

However when Malcolm approached the girl he found her working on a mathematical equation.  After conveying the dealer’s message he told her how to solve the equation.  She was impressed.  During Malcolm’s conversation with the drug lord and his posse the subject turned to Hip Hop, and Malcolm revealed another side of his personality: he and his geek squad are serious student /aficionado of 1990’s rap music.

Malcolm is in fact an authority on the artists of that period – Public enemy, NWA, Wu Tang Clan, et al – which he calls “the Golden Age of Hip hop,” and when he begins to discuss the relative merits of the various rappers the dope dealer and his posse are impressed.  When he sends Malcolm, who he refers to only as “Little Nigga,” back to the young lady to carry an invitation to his birthday party, she says she will only come if Malcolm can also come.  When Malcolm tells the geek squad about the invitation to party with the gangstas he had no intention of going, although he was tempted because the young fox would be there.  However his two fellow geeks were intrigued and saw it as a once in a lifetime adventure, and reasoned that since they would be the guest of the leader of the pack they would be safe.

So they went to the party and it changed their lives.  At first they were having a ball with an unending supply of liquor, weed;  the Spanish kid got blasted and Malcolm was on cloud nine rubbing bellies on the dance floor with his heart throb.  But while the guest boogied their brains out a big dope deal was going down in a back room.  It was not until the deal went bad and the drug lord came backing out of the door firing his guns wildly that the hard partying guest had any clue what was going on.

Suddenly a posse of cops entered the club with guns blazing. The geeks’ dream party became a terrifying nightmare as the revelers fled into the night dodging bullets.  But there was a special twist for Malcolm, as the dope dealer had stuffed his backpack full of Molly and stashed his gun in with the drugs.  It was not until Malcolm and the Geek Squad arrived at school the next day that they discovered the dope and the loaded Roscoe.  This discovery and their subsequent attempt to get rid of the dope takes us on a fascinating journey into the world of cybercrime – a kind convergence of “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Boyz In the Hood.”  On the way we meet a fascinating array of strange people, most of whom are out to do Malcolm and the Geeks no good.

As the Geeks wonder what to do with the dope – scared shitless by their sudden predicament which in the nature of things was very dangerous – a cell phone begins to ring in the back pack. To his amazement the voice on the phone not only knows he has the dope, but also knows his name and present location!   The voice tells Malcolm when and where to deliver the dope and he will be able to live a “happy life” with and interesting tale to tell. Should he fail to show up with the dope he and all of his friends would get iced.   Malcolm quickly agreed ti the caller’s demands and was happy to do so; he couldn’t wait to be rid of the dope.  However a series of madcap events follows that prevents the delivery and Malcolm and the Geeks end up with a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of dope.

The story of how they disposed of the dope is the heart of this fantastic tale, and it begins when the dyke points out that this is not heroin or cocaine they were trying to move but Molly.  “So all we have to do is find the white people,” she said. As much as I’d love to go on discusing this story line, I feel that I would do the reader a disservice by denying you the joy and wonder I felt as I witnessed the film unfold.  Suffice it to say that you will meet a fascinating array of characters that will make your liver quiver with delight.  It is smart, sexy, stylish, adventurous, and entertaining the way all good and successful movies must be.  It is no accident that I say “good” and “successful” because they are not always the same thing.  There are a lot of good movies, films that I like a lot, which are great artistic achievements but cannot attract and audience.

I think with the proper promotion this film could be a smash!!!  It is a paean to modern urban life and an elucidation of how Hip Hop has helped shape the culture proclivities of all Americans of the ir generation –especially in providing the beats that defined what the great Afro-American writer and cultural critic Albert Murray called “The velocity of celebration.”

Of course Murray was talking about the music that animated the club scene in Kansas City during the early decades of the Twentieth Century.  Like the plays of Shakespeare, which literary critics have firmly implanted in some exalted place in the “western canon” – although he was trying to write popular entertainments that a largely illiterate audience would pay their hard earned coin to see – Jazz has been similarly sanitized and canonized to the point that we forget some of the greatest patrons of jazz artist were gangsters.

For instance, the great Earl “Fatha” Hines tells fascinating stories about his relationship with Al Capone, who regularly came to hear his band at The Grand Terrace in Chicago.  Hines was glad to see him in the audience because he always spent a lot of money, and the musicians that played the clubs and dance halls of Kansas City, a wide open boom town in the middle of America where every variety of vice flourished, recall regularly seeing “Pretty Boy” Floyd and “Machine Gun Kelly” out on the dance floor.  So contrary to what some anti-hip hop old heads may say: Gangers have always been part of the music scene.  For one thing they owned most of the night clubs.  It was no different with Hip hop, especially in the early days.

Although hip hop began as a musical phenomenon, spoke words over musical “beats,” it quickly inspired other art forms: break dancing; graffiti art; videos; new hardware for spinning records; sound sampling; fashion and feature films.  This movie is the latest contribution to the genre and it shows in poignant fashion the extent to which hip hop was the soundtrack of a generation’s lives in a way that Blues, Jazz, or Rhythm and Blues could never equal because none of those musical genres directly address the broad range of issues that determine the life’s chances of their listeners the way rappers do.  Like comedy, hip hop is an intellectual art; the rapper must tell a story or make a statement that not only addresses issues that are often quite complex, but they must do it with high style and originality while chanting over beats.  The artist must keep it real while spitting rhymes with a seamless flow.

In other words rappers must be so skilled at combining rhythm and rhyme that they can convey their message while the listeners are grooving to the beat.  And the way hip hop music is utilized in this movie clearly demonstrates the role it has played in shaping the consciousness of a generation – whether it is the rapid fire sermons of Chuck D; the parodic voice of Flava Flave; the prophetic admonitions of Nas declaring “the world is yours,” or Digital Underground calling people to celebrate life by getting down with the “Humpty Hump.”  Malcolm reveals yet another side to his character as he becomes a dancing fool really getting down to Digital Underground, after having won the girl, dumped the dope and won admission to Harvard.

One thing is clear: Rick Famuyiwa is a gifted film maker with a very bright future.  This movie represents the kind of masterpiece that can still be culled from the realities of the gritty urban environment when smart black people are in charge.  The thing that validated my conclusion about the importance of this film was the response from an 18 year old college bound young lady who was taking tickets in the Magic Johnson Theater.  When I asked her if she had seen the film and what she thought of it, she said she had seen it three times and “It gave me a feeling of hope.”   You cannot ask more of a film that that in these troubled times                                                                                                                                                

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Click to see preview
https://youtu.be/NOn_VtCXjUs (cast Interview)
https://youtu.be/L41xwM8tIRQ
https://youtu.be/JCh1Ude3KSc
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
July, 2, 2015

Fallen Angel: Self-Destructing before the World  

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Music Reviews with tags , on July 7, 2015 by playthell

amy-winehouse

Amy during better days
 The Short and Tragic Life of Amy Winehouse

The new documentary film on the British singer Amy Winehouse now playing at the Sunset Theater in the East Village is beautifully produced and directed by Asif Kapadia. Over the course of two hours and eight minutes we are provided a remarkable look into the life of this six time Grammy winner who rose up from the London working class and captured a world-wide audience writing and singing songs based on the vicissitudes of the high times and bizarre episodes that mark the rise and fall of her short but remarkable life.  Watching the movie I got the impression that we were witnessing the human equivalent of a shooting star that blazes across the night skies in a bright flash of light and then flames out before our eyes.

The film is thoughtfully constructed from video clips of her life; some of it is finely produced footage from her live performances in the UK and the USA, but most of the footage comes from family and friends.  Thus we see her in a wide variety of settings.  Some of the film has sound, and thus we can observe her speaking, but other footage is accompanied by voice overs of Amy speaking.  Hence we hear a lot of her story in her own words. And what we see is a young person of considerable creative talent who appears to understand little in life except making music, and cannot overcome the deep seated emotional problems caused by the lasting trauma of her father abandoning her and her mother at an early age.

This leaves her with a deep need to be loved by men, or at least win their approval, and her emotional neediness drives her into a destructive relationship with a guy who is also emotionally damaged because of a screwed up relationship with his parents.    He promises to be her rock and help Amy cope and instead he introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin.  Abuse of these drugs along with excessive alcohol consumption final did her in at the tender age of 27.  However in the meantime she managed to become an international superstar who could have become fabulously rich if she had been able to stay sober.

Although Amy’s particular experience is unique, the basic narrative is an old story: old wine in a new bottle.  In many ways her saga is so familiar she comes across at times as a cliché, depending upon who is watching it.  For those who know something of music business history and inside lore it is easy to place Amy’s self-destructiveness within a tradition of music history in the 20th century. Creative geniuses like Charlie Parker and Jimmy Hendrix self-destructed on drugs, and there is a long line of singers whose fame and fortune couldn’t rescue them from self-destruction: Billy Holiday, Judy Garland, Elvis Pressley, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Phyllis Hyman, Whitney Houston, et al.  However none of them acted their destruction on stages with a million people watching.

Under Asif Karpadia’s direction we are provided glimpses of Amy’s life before she became a star, when she was a passably pretty girl who was more sensuous that beautiful; her best feature being full pouty lips –DSL’s that forced one’s mind into the gutter –and her long black hair, which she often wore in “big hair” styles resembling the popular “beehive” styles of the 1960’s.  She reminded me of one of those smart mouth delinquent working class English girls in the British movie “To Sir with Love,” starring an unusually stiff and priggish Sidney Portier.

But after all is said and done the raison d’etre for this documentary film is Amy Winehouse’s talent and importance as a musical artist.  On this issue the movie becomes an extended panegyric that degenerates into special pleading.   While there is no doubt that Ms. Winehouse had talent, it is a gross exaggeration to call her “The Queen of Soul,” while the real queen, Ms. Aretha Franklin, was alive and well – not to mention her numerous Afro-American progeny such as Whitney Houston, Alicia Keyes, Beyoncé et al who are singing their asses off in the tradition.  And Tony Bennet’s claim that she was “one of the purest jazz singer I ever heard….if she had lived she would have been on the same level with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday,” is shameless hyperbole.

Perhaps Tony Bennet’s assessment of Ms. Winehouse’s talent was influenced by the fact that she constantly cites him as her artistic “hero,” along with Sarah Vaugh, Billy Holliday, Thelonious Monk, and other Afro-American Jazz greats.  Testimony from black American artists in the film like the drummer/leader of “Da Roots,” an innovative hip hop band from Philly, revealed that she was a serious student of the Jazz tradition that was constantly recommending records for him to study.

However most of the music selected for the film – which one presumes was a representative sample of her work – was Rhythm & Blues and her band was rocking!  There were excerpts from some of her Jazz performances, the most extensive being a recording date she did with Tony Bennett, where she was scared to death and nearly walked out of the studio when she kept screwing up on take after take.  It was clear that Amy and Tony have a mutual admiration thing going; that accounts for the dreamy things they say about each other.  But reality is not so easy to conceal.

Amy Winehouse was just the latest white singer to study the black vocal style and brazenly imitate her idols.  Here too her story is an oft told tale.  It was true of Elvis Pressley, Mick Jagger, Joe cocker, Billy Joel. Janet Joplin, et al.  It was also true of white instrumentalists too.  And in each of these cases once the white performer became competent in the genre they were crowned “The King of Jazz” aka Paul Whiteman; the “king of Swing” aka Benny Goodman; the “King of Rock and Roll” aka Elvis Pressley; the “King of Hip Hop” aka M&M; the “Queen of Rap” aka Iggy Azalia.

According to this film Amy Winehouse was both “The Queen of Soul” and was on the way to rivaling the great Ella Fitzgerald and the incomparable Billy Holliday as a Jazz singer.  Yet each of these art forms are Afro-American inventions, and only black artists and audiences can decide who is boss because they set the standards of excellence.  The resulting product has captured the imagination and created devotees among musicians all over the world…since the turn of the twentieth century Afro-American musicians have been the most infventive and imitated artists on earth. It is obvious that white folks need to chill, get over themselves.

Aside for these gross exaggerations regarding the magnitude of Ms. Winehouse’ talent; this is a pretty good flick about a very troubled performer who literally decomposes before our eyes.  We watch her go from a healthy, perky, quite attractive girl, to a bulimic sack of bones who seem to be knocking on death’s door – one foot in the coffin and the other on a banana peel.

Lost in Space?
Amy_winehouse_in_pink_top_and
High off everything ….but life

Yet nobody cold reason with her; not her closet girlfriends who had been at her side since childhood, nor the Afro-American rapper/actor  Mos Def, who she evidently admired and pops up throughout the movie at various stages of her career like Banquo’s ghost, warning Amy to turn away from her self-destructive path. Finally, on a hot July day in 2011, she finally killed herself; the autopsy said she died of “alcohol poisoning.”

In the end the filmmaker managed to produce a poignant portrait of a self-destructive artist who turned her pain into song poetry and allowed the world to witness her self-immolation even as she tried to hide out in plain sight.

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Double Click on links to see Amy Perform

Live in London 2007

Amy’s last tragic Concert

CLICK TO SEE THE REAL QUEENS OF SOUL!

Aretha Franklin

https://youtu.be/fgRyh9f5cOE

Whitney Houston

https://youtu.be/E849UUqNe3g?list=RDE849UUqNe3g

Timbuktu: A Timely and Important Film

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags on March 11, 2015 by playthell
Timbuktu - the movieA Beautiful Malian Family destroyed by Islamic Zealots

 Portrait of an African Tragedy

More often than not the power of cinema is put to frivolous ends and questionable purposes.  In the US the cinema is viewed as an entertainment business with no higher purpose than providing entertainment and cheap thrills from the power of special effects, which often are more important to the film’s success than the story.  And since the major movie companies are driven by the imperatives of commerce rather than culture, as the production cost of these technically complex films keep getting higher and higher they will receive the majority of the company’s promotional dollars, crowding other films that deal with down to earth human stories out of the market.

However in other parts of the world filmmakers view their artistic medium as a powerful weapon for social change and a means of capturing and recapitulating their history in a powerful way that can touch people who have not acquired literacy, and they are making powerful consequential movies for a fraction of the costs.  This is what the filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissakohas has achieved in his powerful new movie Timbuktu which was released on January 28, 2015.

With a gripping screenplay written by Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall,  stunning cinematography and  hauntingly beautiful Malian music composed by Amine Bouhafa, and outstanding actors the film has won several awards and provides a close up view of the Jihadist takeover of a portion of Northern Mali.  It meticulously recounts the imposition of a crude fundamentalist version of Sharia Law, which they believed was handed down from God/Allah to his last prophet Muhammad Ibn Abdullah, to whom he dictated the Koran, Islam’s equivalent of the Christian Bible, directly.

Although there have been profusion of stories of the Jihadist rampage and the outrages that resulted all over the Middle East and Africa – North, East and West – which catalogue their atrocities, this movie puts flesh, bones and faces on the victims as they come to life through the magic this movie, which I believe is destined to play a heroic role in fighting the murderous Islamic fanatics.

One gets the impression that the filmmaker keenly understands the danger of writing about Islamic fanatics when he fudges the issues he so deftly handled in the movie by responding to a query about the message of the movie with this bit of saccharine sophistry, “I didn’t want to have a Manichean attitude, to have the good on one side and the bad on the other.”  I saw no indication of any attempt to produce the kind of wishy washy movie of the sort that he describes here; the portrait of the Jihadists is one of unrelenting evil and totalitarian oppression.

It is a true to life rendition of who the Jihadists are.   Hence I am forced to speculate as to Sissakohas motives for clearly misrepresenting his own work, and I fear it is a hesitation to insult this murderous mob that appear to have tentacles everywhere.  The long time Fatwa on novelists Shalmon Rushdie, recent assassinations of the editors at the Parisian magazine Charlie Eghbo serves as a stark reminder that these Islamic zealots will not hesitate to murder artists and intellectual who criticize them.  Making this movie was in the nature of things a courageous act, but he should not be expected to be martyred for it.

From its opening frames the movie launches a scathing critique of Islamic Jihadism, and it remains unceasing through the movie.  I saw not a single scene where the Islamic militants are shown to have any virtue, courage nor honor.  They are depicted as the murderous barbarians that they are.  For example the film raises a fundamental issue regarding the deep cultural conflict between indigenous African cultures and Islamic dogma imported from the Arabs when it shows the Islamic Jihadists destroying a pile of  classical African sculpture that is celebrated around the world because it was produced by a people with polytheistic beliefs that contradict Islamic beliefs about art.  This conflict is symbolic of the historical relationship between African and Arab civilization.

These works of art have been roundly praised by art critics and students of the tradition around the world.  But the Arab Islamo-Fascists and their brainwashed black lackeys intended to destroy all of these priceless treasures, just as the Taliban destroyed the magnificent colossi hewn into the side of a mountain by blowing them up because they were carved before the rise of Islam and manifested the pagan values of their creators.  It is the objective of the Islamist to convert the whole world to their version of Islam and establish a global Caliphate – i.e. an Islamic state under Sharia governed by an absolute ruler whose authority comes not from the consent of the ruled by from God!

As is their standard procedure wherever Islamic fanatics take over a country these zealots banned smoking, drinking, music and art. They demanded that women cover themselves from head to toe, even wearing gloves and socks in the hot Malian climate and the sentenced offenders to public punishments ranging from floggings for men and women and stoning to death after burying their victims up to the neck in sand and casting stones at their heads.  Adultery was punishable by death.  The movie does a powerful job of recreating the ad hoc religious courts in which citizens were tried and sentenced by armed, ignorant, religious fanatics armed with the most deadly modern weapons, either acquired on the black market or taken from defeated troops armed by the US and other western countries.

The power of this film lies in the way Sissakohas approached his subject.  There were few speeches by political or religious figures; instead he took us inside the daily lives of the characters within their communities before the arrival of the Jihadists, who were foreign Arab invaders that recruited local men upon fear of being put to death should they resist.  And he employed the barren but strangely beautiful landscape to powerful effect.  The result is that we are there; we witness the intimate lives of the people as if we were invited guest.   The film captures the serene life of the rural society before the arrival of the soldiers of Allah, which magnifies the horror as they terrorize the community with their whacko interpretation of the Koran.

Although much of the Malian population was Muslim, they followed a different doctrine.  This is indicative of a raging civil war over theology in the Muslim world, and the ease with which one could run afoul of the new Koranic laws is represented in the film by the plight of a group of twenty-something men and women who are chilling out in their living room playing on string lutes and singing traditional songs.  One of the Jihadists heard music and called in a complaint to the local headquarters, and they dispatched a heavily armed patrol on a search and destroy mission against the unoffending young artists as if they were armed forces who had attacked them.  For their religious “crime” of making music they were arrested, taken from their homes and imprisoned, then sentenced to from forty to eighty lashes with a whip in the public square.  The floggings and stoning’s are so convincingly st age that we experience the horror of the victims.

A Singer being flogged in the public Square

Timbuktu V

All she did was Sing!

Of the myriad horrors revealed in this movie, none renders a more powerful indictment of Jihadists than the tragic story of the musician Kidane, who lived on the edge of the vast Sahara desert – which as large as the entire USA – with his beautiful wife and darling daughter.  He has chosen to remain in his simple albeit comfortable tent despite the fact that all of his neighbors have fled as the Jihadist take over the region.  A religious man with an optimistic outlook on life Kidane, movingly played by Ibrahim Ahmed, believes that he can get along with the Jihadist and that one day they will be gone and life can return to normal.  He was wrong, and a single mistake resulting from a conflict with his neighbor resulted in the death of Kidane and his wife at the hands of a Jihadist firing squad, leaving their wonderful little girl alone in the world facing a horrific future.

Kidane before the Jihadist Court

Timbuktu = Trial

A harrowing lesson in Sharia Law

This movie leaves no stone unturned regarding the horrors of the Jihadist and the director made a wise decision in choosing to reveal these horrors through the lives of citizens that we came to know well enough to feel their pain.  It is a powerful reminder that we cannot pretend that these people don’t exist or that we can escape their wrath…much of which is directed at the USA and justifiably so. Nevertheless, regardless of our sins against the Islamic peoples, we cannot sit idly by and watch the Jihadists devour entire areas of Africa and the Middle East and build a haven for terrorists to attack anywhere in the world….including the new Freedom Tower in New York.

Perhaps the left, many of whom believe that a Boko Haram  victory in Nigeria or Mali is less offensive than those governments forming alliances with France, England or the US to defeat them, will learn something from this movie. If nothing else they should learn that the modern Islamic Jihad is real, it’s murderous, it’s spreading and it can only be stopped with superior force of arms!  Indeed, as the movie shows so poignantly: the rise of militant Islam on that continent is a modern African tragedy.

 An actual picture of the expulsion of the Arab Jihadists
 Rejoicing expulsion of Islamis from Timbuctoo
The African people of Timbuktu take out their drums and rejoice!
(Double Click below to see the News documentary)
“The Quill and the Sword: How the Islamist took Timbuktu”
https://youtu.be/WxB6qy2DMY8

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 Playthell G. Benjamin
 On the Road
March 11, 2015